Several years ago I was asked to write a statement to accompany an image of my work that was to be included in Peter Dormer’s book ##The New Ceramics: Trends and Traditions##, (Thames and Hudson, 1986). As part of this statement I wrote, 'I am happiest making pots, working alone for weeks in the country.’ My apprentice at the time, Karen Wells, laughed at this, saying that I was incapable of saying 'no' to all the invitations that came my way — invitations that took me around the world, took up much of my time, and involved meeting many people. This was true, of course, and since that time I have been engaged in judging ceramics, conducting workshops, giving lectures including keynote addresses in nearly every country in the world. When I tried to make a list, the count was more than 40 countries, and some countries I visited several times for different projects. From the excited welcome of the rural potters in Kwa Zulu Natal and drinking homemade gin with a group of potters in the Pusta of Hungary, to the formality of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the Kunstmuseum in Munich, Germany, where I gave lectures, are just some of the memories I value – ones that are unforgettable.
From being faced with more than 2000 objects in Mino in Japan, ranging from 15 x 15 mm tiles to room-sized installations, and having to choose a possible winner, to exhibiting my work on a promontory overlooking the sea at Lubenice, Croatia – a village where the exhibitors outnumbered the population, to trying to explain to non-English- speaking Italian engineers that it would be difficult to achieve reduction and salt-glaze in a computer-controlled kiln set for oxidation that needed to be switched off at 3.30 pm, to pouring new wine for the local authorities from my jugs at the Torgiano New Wine Festival in Italy, only to see someone turn over a jug to examine the base and flood the table with red wine, all became part of my learning of cultures around the world. From Portugal to Canada, across Scandinavia, the Czech Republic, Serbia, across France and many other countries – at the start of my career I never dreamed that pottery could be so enlivening.
Imagine trying to demonstrate making large pots in a hot-house tent with water spraying down on everything turning the clay into a soggy mess; it was 45 degree heat in Sacramento outside that day. Another tent, this time on a cold mid-summer’s day, wet to the knees from the wet grass in Ringebu, Norway, while greater names (like Peter Voulkos) repaired to the school house to make their work. We all needed the aquavit to dry us from the inside out. Imagine being at an international workshop at Archie Bray in Montana, US, with a Ukranian artist in the studio to my left, two women from Ecuador to my right then a Thai and and a much esteemed Frenchman; then on the other side of the pottery shed the studios were occupied by a Taiwanese, a Chinese, A Korean and a potter from Mali; what a privilege those weeks were.
It has been a most fulfilling time because I believe in the power of ceramics to spread knowledge and goodwill among nations. We learn about civilisations, past and present, and gain an insight into our contemporary situation. My interest in ceramics began at the same time as the crafts revival occurred worldwide, and I was keen to participate in all those groups that promoted ceramics at the highest level. My efforts were rewarded by my becoming president of various groups, thus I was able to help steer some progress in the awareness of the importance of ceramic art. This of course included an international perspective. In my work as a writer and the editor of ##Pottery in Australia## I endeavoured to include articles on international artists, and this finally resulted in the international magazines I established, ##Ceramics: Art & Perception## and ##Ceramics TECHNICAL##, which both met with success.
It was always the people that provided the most stimulating experience – fellow ceramists that I met, came to know and made friends with, people with similar interests and values who were positive and hardworking. Meeting such people led to further opportunities for me, and I was able to work together with them planning articles for the magazine and for exhibitions in the gallery that I ran in conjunction with the magazines in Paddington, NSW.
During those years, we hosted shows from the UK, (curated by Marta Donaghey), from France (curated by Renate Wunderle) and from Holland (curated by Pauline Ploeger). The Gallery also represented countries such as Serbia and New Zealand, and work from the Tiwi Islands. Special event shows such as the ##Millennium Platter Exhibition##, an international show curated by Gudrun Klix, were also held. I felt I was offering Australian potters a broad look at what was happening in the wider world, at the same time as learning more about the art of ceramics and the cultures of diverse places.
The Gulgong events that I organised, eight in all so far, had a similar philosophy. The first one, Fire-Up Gulgong, brought 120 people to camp on the family farm, watch master potters at work, interact in demonstrations, and fire kilns. Over these Gulgong events, 100 master potters (80 from overseas and 20 from Australia) acted as workshop leaders, and were able to share their knowledge and experience and exhibit their work.
The numbers and the event’s reputation grew and at the 2010 event, Clay Energy: Hungarian, Israeli, Finnish, US, UK, Australian and NZ master ceramists offered their skills to the 500 participants. All these events and exhibitions gave me good material for the publication of books and magazines, thereby extending the value of these experiences even further.
In between all these happenings, my own ceramics practice continued. During a 1975 residency in the US working with Paul Soldner, I had hoped to explore some raku ceramics techniques, but, instead, came home inspired to build a salt-glaze kiln.
There is a physical aspect to salt-glazing: one becomes totally involved in the process, testing different clays and decorative techniques and the colours and textures that reflected the Australian countryside. There was much to learn, a lifetime of research to undertake.
With these experimental pots I entered every ceramics competition available in Australia and abroad. Perhaps because the work looked fresh and different I was awarded various prizes and invited to give workshops to ceramics groups. My philosophy of making pots has always tended towards useful wares. I enjoy using other potters’ work and feel in touch with them, literally and figuratively, when I do so. And, of course, it is the best way to test new ideas by using my pots in my own kitchen.
The land around me on the farm is productive, offering me not only sustenance but also all the materials I need for making pottery. Since the early 1980s, I have combined the firing of salt-glaze with woodfired kilns. This involves more physical work, more research, and more rewards. Woodfiring is a growing interest for ceramic artists throughout the world, but is just one of the many interesting avenues a potter can take. I enjoy them all but find the greatest challenge is to make useful work that is relevant and has meaning for our contemporary life.